Would You Like to Be the Partner I Want You to Be?

In my role as a relationship therapist, I’ve begun prompting couples to ask their partners, “Would you like to be the person that I’m asking you to change into? Would you like to be the partner that I want you to be?”

This type of inquiry quiets the tired back and forth, right and wrong ping ponging that gets us nowhere. It’s not uncommon to ask your partner to make changes in their beliefs, attitudes, or behavior to accommodate your wishes. Very often, though, this is met by an entrenched resistance from the person being asked to change. You should ask yourself if you’re resisting simply for the sake of resisting, or would the requested change be consistent with your own growth and personal evolution?

If what is being requested seems authentic and resonant with your growth, and you are nevertheless resisting, then you might want to pay attention to why you’re digging your heels in. If you’re caught up in the power struggle and keeping a scorecard of offenses, the path to amicability remains obstructed; the larger picture is surely being missed.

The goal of winning in a relationship is absurd. That would guarantee unhappiness. Reflect on whether you’d rather be right or whether you’d rather be happy. One tends to preclude the other. Relationship battles often resemble the up and down of a seesaw ride. If one of you is up, the other is necessarily down. You may take turns in the up position, but you’re unlikely to find the balance that brings about a sense of harmony in this zero-sum equation. The shift we should seek is seen as a win-win situation – both people come out on top. In fact, this is the only pathway to a congruent, if not blissful, partnering.

Releasing the need to defend yourself – and subsequently abdicating the silliness of right or wrong – really enables a more reflective consideration of the changes being requested, or perhaps demanded, by your partner. If the modification sought would assist in your personal growth, then you should embrace it. It’s a win-win. You’ll grow and perhaps improve the energy of your relationship. While it’s disappointing if this doesn’t happen, you’ve still at least moved forward in your self-actualization. To that extent, you are removing yourself from being the problem. Should you find yourself in this position, you may discover that the old battle masked deeper underlying issues that may now arise.

The conflict over change, although often substantive, is at times simply a safe, if not frustrating, way to express hostility. You might ask your partner or spouse, “If I make the changes you’re asking for, will you feel the way you’d like to feel about me?” This question may reveal whether there are deeper issues – usually emotional – that need to break through and enter the discussion.

Much of our defensiveness surrounding others’ impositions that we change has to do with our own sense of self and identity. “There’s nothing wrong with me” is a revealing statement, in that it demonstrates an insecure and fragile ego. It’s not a question of whether there’s something wrong with you as much as it’s about whether you’re seeking to evolve further and please your partner – provided that you’re not acting from fear or inauthenticity. There is a direct correlation between one’s openness to change and their self-esteem. If your self-worth feels tentative, you’re more likely to defend against change. On a differing note, though, people should never simply succumb to the demands of others if they are coming from an angry or controlling energy.

Relationship success requires quieting your defensiveness and developing a resilience founded upon the healthy spirit of a co-operative alliance. If you try to be the best you can be for the other, and remain genuine and true to your own growth, you can accurately say you are doing everything you can to make your relationship prosper.

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13 replies
  1. Loren M. Gelberg-Goff
    Loren M. Gelberg-Goff says:

    Great points, Mel, and well worth sharing… It’s so important for each individual to look at him/herself rather than simply at each other… I like the phrase “other-esteem”. It works in so many situations…and no matter how “evolved” we may feel, I believe that we always need a reminder to stay centered and grounded…

    Reply
  2. G
    G says:

    I am having a hard time understanding what it is you are trying to say. I think that reviewing your response to a partners request is important. And yes understanding ones response allows for better understanding of oneself and possible change.
    But having recently studied the prostitute archetype it seems that saying yes to the changes your partner wants you to make and then not being able to do so leaves everybody in a worse place.
    Also is this a one sided exchange/request? Or are both partners participating in sharing what they need in order to feel that it is (or will be) a safe loving relationship?

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      By all means this would not be a one sided agreement. Mutual cooperation is the keystone of healthy relating. As to your other concern, if one tries to adapt change, out of a conscious decision and doesn’t succeed, the willingness to try does matter. It represents caring rather than a callous indifference.

      Reply
  3. Shannon Batts, MS, LMFT, LPC
    Shannon Batts, MS, LMFT, LPC says:

    People resist being asked to change who they are because it’s as if the asker is saying the partner is deeply flawed. I think this is what the big defensiveness is about-that it is like we are not loved for who we are. I imagine much better outcomes if we could change the request to, “are you interested in the both of us committing to getting some not helpful/likely destructive habits out of our talking and being together and replacing that with being heard, and understood, and supported?”

    Don’t forget that defensiveness is a normal reaction to being attacked. Criticism will play out like an attack. I have couples practice listening to each other with curiosity and provide sample questions they can ask instead of “why did you do that?!” This is right out of the Gottman play book which is what I use-the dream within the gridlock kinds of materials, and the Aftermath of a Fight process. Really awesome breakthroughs come from listening with curiosity-learning to validate your partner’s point of view, seeing ways to take responsibility for your part, etc.
    Thanks, Mel for great grist for the mill.

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Yes Shannon defensiveness is a normal reaction to being attacked. But nevertheless not a healthy one. My article doesn’t really speak to an attack, but more to a request. If that brings up a feeling of being flawed that should be addressed. As humans we are all of course flawed. But on an interpersonal level, it may not be an issue of flaws as much as congruence. If something doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel good. That doesn’t make the other damaged.

      Reply
      • Nancy
        Nancy says:

        I just discovered your blog — when I googled the question ” why do I have to be right?” which is a question have struggled with for many years….. and gradually over time found that I do not always have to be right — but it has taken a struggle and therapy and support and — everything! What you say in this post is very good, but, like a lot of very good ideas, seems to me to depend on the couple that are talking to each other having already quite a bit of self-awareness and ability to be open. A surprising number of people do not have this ability, in my experience. Even people who want to be that way, can pretend to be that way, and take steps to be that way (like me.)

        For those people, the going needs to be a lot slower and a lot less direct.

        Reply
  4. Phoenix
    Phoenix says:

    Hi Mel,

    Isn’t a partner that is asking you to change your beliefs an act of non-acceptance of you as an individual? Especially when your partner has known what your beliefs are from the onset of the relationship?

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Phoenix,
      Sometimes our beliefs evolve or change over time. As well, it may take quite some time for all of our beliefs to be revealed or become more transparent. Often, in the early stages of relationships, some people are inclined to withhold certain beliefs that they are fearful will be judged or met with disfavor. All things considered, there are many variables at play. What happens when our partner’s beliefs change? Do we remind them that they have changed their position? Aren’t they entitled to rethink how they think?

      Relationship should be seen as a growing, changing dynamic in which respect, thoughtfulness and resilience are essential ingredients.

      Reply
  5. Diana Eidelman
    Diana Eidelman says:

    Mel I truly enjoyed your article. Harville Hendrix spoke of the changes your partner asks of you as an “opportunity for growth”. I believe you are saying something similar.

    In my practice, I often ask people the question you ask, but in addition I ask: “what will happen to you if this aspect of your being does not change over the next, 5, 10, 20 years?”. Usually the individual can see that in the long run he/she will will become a person he/she may not really like and thus, is motivated for change. If the person has children, I may in certain instances ask: “Is this a quality you would like your son or daughter to have to face and accept in their spouse?”

    I believe many people see the problems and at times recognize their weakness. In my mind, the question is always: how do we motivate them for change?

    Have a great weekend! Diana

    Reply
  6. Anna
    Anna says:

    Be -w-i-t-h- the person you want to be. i.e. be the person you want to be, rather than looking to the other to be the one you want to be with. Allows you think about how to change out of defensiveness, to take charge of yourself.

    Reply

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